Winter is a hard time for pets — and while pets have warm places to sleep and humans to snuggle, animals outdoors have a much rougher time.
In many areas of the country, stray cats are everywhere. These are the same animals as domesticated cats, but they’ve been living on their own for so long that they’ve essentially become wild once again.
If you hear howling outside, it might be that you have a few strays taking up residence in your yard. And during the winter, they face cold and hunger, too.
Stray cats live a precarious life — as we can see from some of the crazy situations these curious creatures get themselves into — but you can make it better!
With just a few simple tips, and some diligence, you can help a cat survive the winter — and you don’t even have to be a cat person!
Remember, stray cats aren’t pets, so don’t try to pet them or pick them up if they’re not used to you — they might scratch or bite you! Give them their space, and they’ll appreciate it.
1. Build a shelter
Imagine yourself living outdoors in winter without an adequate shelter. Once your clothes are wet-through, with nowhere to dry off you lose body heat, your immune system weakens, you are less able to fight off infection, and on the slippery slope to ill health. The same is true for stray cats.
Providing a windproof, dry shelter gives them a place to escape the elements whilst they sleep.
It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, but double insulation is ideal, such as an outer plastic carton containing a sturdy cardboard box with straw insulation in the gap between the two.
Try to raise the shelter up off the ground, so the earth doesn’t act as a heat sink. Also, create the smallest, cat-sized entrance possible, so there’s less opportunity for heat to get out and the weather to get in.
If possible, rig up a porch or weather-shield over the entrance, such as a projecting roof or a plastic curtain.
2. The right bedding
Blankets or newspaper for bedding are a nice idea, but once wet they stay damp and drain the cat’s body heat. Instead, loosely fill a pillowcase with packing peanuts, which are an excellent insulator and don’t absorb moisture.
Alternatively, provide a deep layer of straw for the cat to burrow into and keep warm.
And whilst we’re talking about keeping warm, consider ‘papering’ the walls of the box with Mylar (a heat resistant plastic sheet). This helps reflect back the cat’s body heat to keep them extra snug.
3. Shovel out shelters
If you have cats living on your property, either in their own shelters or in ones you’ve built, make sure the cats can get in and out after a snowfall.
Take a moment and shovel out the entrances. That way, the cats can get out and access food and water.
4. Food and water access
The cats will require extra calories and fat during the cold weather months in order to maintain their energy requirements. If you can inspire your neighbors to be involved in the project, even if only through drop off donations of food to the designated “feeder of the cats,” the project will have a much better outcome.
A dry kitten formula is an excellent source of extra calories and balanced nutrition. Canned cat foods are also a great source of high calorie nutrition, but because of their higher liquid content, they may freeze during the coldest temperatures.
Feeding and water stations should be protected from the cold and placed as near to the sleeping shelter as possible so that the cats do not have to be exposed to harsh conditions when they need to eat or drink.
Feeding the cats at the same time each day will allow them to expect and rely on a schedule. If they do not know whether they will be eating or not, they will venture out into the cold to look for food, defeating the whole purpose of the care project.
Having a dedicated “feeder,” or a small group of scheduled “feeders” who take turns, can make the process much smoother. Also important to the cats’ survival is fresh, clean water.
Of course, snow is an excellent source for water, but don’t forget to check the water bowl regularly to make sure it hasn’t frozen during the night.
5. Cat-Proof your garage
If you’re having outdoor cats stay in your garage, make sure it’s a safe place for them to be.
Remove anything breakable, claw-able, or poisonous — and be sure to clean up any spilled antifreeze, as this toxic chemical is tasty to animals.
And naturally, if you keep your car in the garage, make sure you know where the cats are before pulling in or out!
6. Check car engine
In times of extreme cold, cats and other small animals sometimes like to get up under the hood of your car and snuggle with your still-warm engine. It sounds crazy, but it’s true!
If you’ve driven on a cold night, it’s a good idea to check under your hood in the morning to make sure no one is camped out inside.
We don’t need to tell you what can happen to a small creature inside a running car.
7. Install a small door
If you have a safe, designated area for strays, a pet door can be a great way to let them come and go as they please.
But be careful that you don’t let the rest of the animal kingdom in, too! Be sure to get a small door that only a cat can fit through.
Outdoor and stray cats tend to be on the thinner side, so don’t worry about excluding larger cats. A smaller door will exclude other animals, though, like raccoons.
Again, just remember to give strays their space — both for your safety, and their comfort.
If you have a colony of cats skulking around your neighborhood, consider lending them some goodwill this winter.
And as always, if you find one that seems sick or injured, call your local animal control office, shelter, or police department.